New year, new rules

Twenty-one ways to make sports better, from the minds of ESPN The Magazine

Updated: December 15, 2010, 3:01 PM ET
ESPN The Magazine

Illustration by Bryan ChristieWe won't play by The Man's rules! Unless, of course, we can add a few of our own to the book.

There once was a boy who hated baseball. So on a fine summer afternoon, he and his only friend, Hobbes, made up their own game. It had but one rule: You couldn't play it the same way twice. Otherwise, anything went. You could use a baseball or soccer ball, a bat or mallet. Sometimes there were bases. Sometimes there were secret bases. Once there was a pernicious poem place, and a bag flag zone. There was anything you wanted, rules invented on the fly. The boy called the game Calvinball, after himself.

"Other kids' games are such a bore," he said. "They've gotta have rules, and they gotta keep score. Calvinball is better by far. It's never the same. It's always bizarre. You don't need a team or a referee. You know that it's great 'cause it's named after me!"

The sport died in 1995 with the comic strip that brought it to life -- Calvin and Hobbes. Pity that. Because how much more fun would Calvinball be -- to watch and to play -- than today's overlegislated, overregulated games, right? If there's one thing fans, athletes and we media folk can agree on, it's that rules ruin everything. As Steelers linebacker James Harrison said in response to the NFL's crackdown on illegal hits, "Let the players play." Or as Calvin asked, "What's wrong with just having fun?" Nothing! Except ...

At the risk of exposing ourselves as hopelessly lame, we submit that rules get a bad shake. They aren't the enemy of artistry. They're the opposite. Rules are like water to an oar, the resistance that makes flow possible. In music writer Kelefa Sanneh's recent review of Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop, he noted that the genre emerged only once rappers stopped freestyling and started building their rhymes around backing tracks in 4/4 time. This gave them form to follow, structure to push against. "By submitting to rhythm," Sanneh wrote, "paradoxically, rappers came to sound more authoritative than the free-form poets, toasters, chatters, patterers and jokers who came before them." Think of how the NBA bounces to the beat of two steps per dribble, 24 seconds per shot. It was the tension of those limits that resulted in the greatest shot by the greatest player, Michael Jordan's game- winning jumper against Utah in the 1998 Finals. Without the travel rule and the shot clock, basketball, too, would be mere free-form poetry.

Sure, rules hinder, but they also inspire. After his editor bet $50 he couldn't write a book using only 50 different words, Theodor Geisel -- Dr. Seuss, to you -- turned in Green Eggs and Ham. After the NCAA banned dunking, Lew Alcindor developed the sky hook. Magic comes from those who subvert. The tired conventions of a thousand Bruckheimer movies made Pulp Fiction all the more revelatory. The NCAA's laws and bylaws adjudicating formations make Oregon's spread-option blur all the more astonishing. And, yes, while some rules are shockingly ill-considered, some are wondrously calibrated. Consider: If the distance between first and second were 91 feet instead of 90 feet, there'd be no Rickey Henderson or Carl Crawford. If the distance were 89 feet, there'd be too many.

"It's boring playing it the real way," Calvin said about baseball. But this is a childish thought. There's no joy in slavishly following rules, but there's plenty in bending, pushing, undermining and redefining them. And without rules, we'd be denied the greatest thrill of all: breaking them.

1. Protect NFL players -- and their fun
2. Turn right once in a while
3. A day game every day
4. Golfers shouldn't suffer for sins of the wind
5. Don't rely on the eye to judge field goals
6. No sharing of numbers in college football
7. Put icing on ice
8. Weed out BCS weaklings
9. Put the "C" in BCS
10. Only one bowl game after Jan. 1
11. Implement the Matt Meyers balk rule
12. Fine players relative to salary
13. Decide once and for all, what a catch is
14. Redefine offsides
15. Protect hockey players the Euro way
16. Limit basketball teams to two timeouts a game
17. Bring replay to soccer
18. Permit the "12-to-6" elbow
19. Standardize the laws of the hardwood
20. Up the Olympic ante
21. Hold the World Cup every three years

Last year's rules changes